Commentary: Should Obama tell voters to 'stay the course'?

In a folksy 45-minute speech on the grand staircase at the University of Washington Tacoma, Vice President Joe Biden covered all three of the political strategies being used by Democrats this year.

One might work. Two are getting most of the play by candidates facing stiffer-than-expected challenges. Senate seats and House seats, once thought safe, have been moving to “likely” and then to “toss-up.”

That’s why Biden came to the state Friday: to raise money and raise enthusiasm for struggling campaigns. He appeared at a fundraiser in Seattle for Denny Heck, the Democratic candidate in the 3rd Congressional District. And he spoke for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray at the UWT.

The first strategy he articulated is the type of flailing around for gotchas that has marked most of Murray’s attempt for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.

Biden joined with nearly every warm-up speaker in accusing Dino Rossi of trying to profit from foreclosed homes. What Rossi actually did was give a generic speech prior to a seminar on buying and selling such properties. And Biden repeated the tired joke about Rossi naming the family dog Dubya.

The second theme was “Don’t Look Back,” a reminder of what was going on in the nation and the state in 2008 when Biden and Barack Obama won the national election. Biden quoted former Boston Mayor Kevin White.

“Don’t compare me to the Almighty,” White said, “compare me to the alternative.” Biden said Republicans want to take the nation back to the days of George W. Bush.

“We’ve seen this movie before, and it’s a horror movie,” Biden said.

The third strategy, which Biden and Obama have begun articulating in the last few weeks, is reminiscent of an earlier campaign by a previous president that turned out pretty well.

In 1982, the phrase-makers and ad-crafters for then-President Ronald Reagan urged voters to “Stay The Course.” Sure, it’s been rough, Reagan said during another major recession. Tough decisions were made and it will take patience to see them through. But, he said, it will be worth it.

Then, two years later, Reagan swept to re-election with a slogan that “It’s morning in America,” even if it wasn’t quite yet.

Democrats tend not to like Reagan. But they do give him credit for articulating an agenda and successfully making the complex simple and understandable. And last week, in a speech before a campaign concert, Obama said: “If we stay on focus, if we stay on course, then ultimately we will make progress.”

I spoke to some Democrats who were waiting for the Friday event to begin. Several shared a similar sentiment: Why aren’t their candidates defending the party and their agenda?

Biden finally got there.

“People are angry with good reason. And when they are angry, they don’t want to make a choice, they just want to focus on their anger. Our job is to make sure they focus on the choice,” Biden said.

And he actually defended the health care reform bill, the rescue of the banking and auto industries, the stimulus package and the changes to regulation of the financial markets.

“If the financial markets had collapsed, it would have been a worldwide depression and every one of your pension plans, all of your houses would have been absolutely blown away.”

These are the issues the Republicans are running against, pretty effectively so far. For the most part, Democrats have not responded – perhaps out of fear that these matters are so unpopular that it’s better not to mention them.

So rather than engage in a campaign about important issues, we’re left with allegations about profiting from foreclosures, whether Rossi wants European Airbus and not American Boeing to win a lucrative air tanker contract, and whether he thinks public sector jobs are meaningful.

If Murray defended her party’s agenda as aggressively as she touts her success in steering federal money to the state, we might have a substantive final three weeks of campaign 2010.